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Close Encounters Cecil Castellucci Style

A Profound Story of Pain, Alienation and Planetary Travel

YA author Cecil Castellucci has the rare ability to say so very much to so very many with so few words. In her latest novel, First Day on Earth ($17.99, Scholastic, ages 12-18), I read in amazement how she painted such a moving and complete picture in prose of Mal, the main character in just 150 pages.

The story introduces Mal Leighter, an insightful yet lonely and hurting high school student who rescues animals and has two friends. Mal’s mom is an alcoholic (he takes care of her) and his dad ditched the family years before.  While Mal feels disconnected from the other students at his school it doesn’t just stem from his troubled home life.  Not long after his father departed, Mal was abducted by aliens and wishes they would return for him. In Rocket Man Elton John sang “It’s lonely out in space,” but Mal doesn’t mind and is willing to take that risk. Anything has to be better than his pain-filled time on Earth. When he becomes friends with Hooper at his abductee support group, he thinks he’s found his ticket to ride, that is if Hooper will take him. Hooper claims to be an alien but Mal thinks the guy might just be crazy. Either way, their friendship blossoms and together they learn what home means to different people.

What sets this book apart from so many other middle grade novels is the depth of emotion conveyed so succinctly that any more words or chapters would have been superfluous. Some chapters, like #26, “I want to be taken away from here,” and #32 “Why is the hardest question in the world to answer,” consist of only one line. Simple yet powerful. The characters of Posey, Mal’s classmate whose overtures of friendship he continually rejects, her mom the vet, Dr. Manitsky and Darwyn, a tag-along whose past continues to haunt his present, drew me into the story and kept me turning the pages. I read the book in two sittings and while immensely satisfied, I really did not want the book to end. It truly was out-of-this-world and I’d encourage kids to consider this for one of their book club’s selections.

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